Opening a space for student leadership in sustainability

Student-staff collaboration, as well as motivated student leaders, has been critical in driving bold sustainable development initiatives at TBS Education, according to both faculty and students at the institution. Many have been inspired by students – the business leaders of the future.

TBS Education has a strong history of student participation that goes back 18 years. “Our students were the first in France to ask for a National Student Conference on Sustainable Development (NSCSD),” said Florent Deisting, director of societal transition at TBS Education.

“And the blend of student and faculty member engagement has been key to this success.”

Student-led initiatives

The NSCSD – or Les Assises Nationales Etudiantes du Développement Durable in French – is the result of a collaboration between two student associations (B3D, which focuses on sustainability, and PRISM, which specialises in social diversity) and the school.

The latest live-streamed edition was held this week on 24-25 October and included the offer of a EUR1,000 (US$1,050) prize for the best alumni or student eco-project. The conference also featured Jean-Marc Jancovici, the well-known and popular university professor and climate change expert, who was specifically chosen as the main speaker by the students.

The events involved students, alumni, professors and social partners, and the scale was impressive: 30 workshops and 15 seminars over two days in the 2023 edition.

“On day one, which deals with the environmental pillar of sustainable development, there were 400 students attending, and on day two, which focuses on the social pillar, there were 800,” said Deisting.

“The students are particularly motivated as they decide on the schedule of the conferences and the speakers at the start of each year,” he said. “Faculty must not impose their view, otherwise students won’t participate and engage.”


TBS Education was founded in 1903 to train business leaders of the future. It has four campuses in Toulouse, Barcelona, Casablanca, and Paris, and its 53,000 alumni help to boost alliances with multinational corporations, many of which offer work placements to its 6,000 students and 2,000 trainees.

The institution offers a wide range of undergraduate and graduate studies for business and management students, which are taught in French, Spanish or English. The courses cover finance, marketing, business management, and aerospace management.

“We offer three additional ‘tracks’ for TSB students – with each comprising various courses – climate change, sustainable business and sustainable finance,” said Deisting. “90 students this year chose climate change and 30 chose each of the other two.”

What prevents more becoming involved? “These are additional classes, in the evening, and many students have paid work they need to do, some are away on international mobility programmes, and others are on placements or apprenticeships,” he responded.

Awards and challenges

TBS Education was highly commended by judges in 2023’s edition of the Green Gown Awards – the global sustainability awards for universities endorsed by the United Nations and the International Association of Universities, among others – for its student involvement.

The awards are designed to highlight students and faculties’ sustainability ideas and solutions to the climate and environmental crisis, to spread good practice, and advance the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The judges particularly liked the TBS Education initiative because it has grown over many years from a one-day conference, offers a broad range of activities showcasing ecological and social responsibility, and is fun.

In one event in 2022, for example, students engaged with Toulouse Football Club on issues such as the use of the stadium during winter months and how its energy consumption could be reduced.

More polemical was students’ interest in whether the team could travel by train rather than plane to the nearby away fixtures. From the players’ perspective, taking the train raised security concerns, doubts over train availability, and worries over the increased travel time involved.

“Students defined the questions relating to sustainability and provided ‘solutions’ – and the footballers responded,” said Deisting. “The students directly involved themselves in how best to manage a professional football club.”

Students took away three key learning points from that experience:

• Collaboration between students, teachers and partners is a key success factor for any corporate social responsibility project;

• Creativity and innovation are important in making activities attractive and relevant; and

• The NSCSD is effective in promoting social and environmental innovation.

‘The planet is burning’

The NSCSD comprises 20 volunteer students from PRISM and 20 from B3D, plus two organisers. Both the organisers and volunteer students are selected each year by the previous year’s organisers in a job interview-type process which involves applicants being grilled on their knowledge of sustainability issues and social diversity, as well as their motivation to contribute.

Esther Susset (21), who is doing a masters in management and business, is part of PRISM and, together with the others in the NSCSD, helped set up the two-day conference. “We organise smaller activities throughout the year, like self-defence classes for women or outside speakers talking about partnerships or equality, but the main focus is the two-day conference,” she said.

Susset’s specific role in the conference was to introduce the main speaker from a company called Biocenys, which promotes biodiversity by carrying out assessments of firms. (They may recommend that an organisation that is making insufficient social impact undertakes counselling sessions or, for example, participates in beekeeping.)

“Following the talk, I encouraged students to ask questions and reflect on what the speaker said,” she said. “I had other tasks around welcoming people and making sure the whole event ran smoothly, and of course attending events myself, like the Goliath movie [a 2022 film about an investigation into pesticide use].”

Susset feels the biggest challenge in organising the conference came at the start of the year when some students had less motivation or were too busy to participate; but it all came together at the end.

Another difficulty was around the students’ plan to establish a pop-up store during the conference to sell reusable water containers, recycled paper and sustainable pens, for example, but that idea had to be shelved in favour of other priorities.

Speakers cancelling caused another headache, but in the end those issues were also resolved. “I arrived too late to vote for the main speaker this year, but I definitely will do so next,” she said.

How does TSB succeed in creating the right environment for students to engage in and lead sustainability and diversity issues?

“First, by new students seeing other highly motivated students from the previous year,” replied Susset. “Second, we had classes on biodiversity that encouraged everyone to want to learn and share different points of view. And third, the eco-award competition that allows us to vote for the best new project is both fun and highly motivating. We want to know who will win!” she said.

Susset is driven to make a positive impact on the environment because she says the planet is burning and there is no future if the economy is unsustainable.

“We will be the managers of tomorrow and it is important we have a vision, make good choices and are good human beings,” she said. “There are a lot of things to be done.”